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11 December 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:33am

A Jewish Path

How a Midwestern American Christian began her journey towards liberal Judaism

By Rabbi Janet Burden

I am a Jew – a Liberal Jew. Why do I immediately qualify my statement of identification with the adjective “liberal”? To acknowledge forthrightly that anyone who discusses religion will have a bias that has been determined by their personal history, education and lived experience.

It is precisely through emphasising the existence of this bias that I identify myself with other religious progressives. I cannot purport to speak for Judaism. I am an individual Jew, speaking about my Judaism.

Having said that, I am obliged to tell you about myself. I was born and educated in the United States, though I have chosen to make Britain my home. I was not born Jewish, but rather began life as a generic Midwestern American Christian.

I grew up affirming the trinity, without really understanding what it meant. It was only when I reached my teenage years that I began to have serious doubts. I kept my scepticism to myself, however, as much of my social life revolved around our church. It was so much more comfortable to fit in.

Once I became an independent adult, I turned my back on religion entirely. One reason for this was my perception of the connections between the churches and right-wing politics.

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I couldn’t make any sense of this, given how I read the core message of the Bible, and particularly the prophetic texts. As my own political consciousness grew, so did my discomfort with the tradition I was raised in. Not being aware of any alternative, and frankly not seeing the necessity for one, I simply withdrew from any connection with religion for more than a decade.

In my early 30’s, I decided that I wanted to return to full time education to study for an MA. Despite having a successful career in retailing, I had felt that my life lacked meaning and purpose. Thus, in addition to my studies, I became active in a number of groups that were trying to make the world a better place: environmental groups, human rights watches, anti-poverty campaigns, and so on.

Over time I came to realise that there were a disproportionate number of Jews among my activist friends. When I asked one of them why he thought this was, he shrugged and said, “This is just what Jews do.” I was intrigued. I bought a few books, visited the local synagogue, and my learning about Jews and Judaism had begun.

I didn’t leave my scepticism about religion behind as I began my studies. That was one of the great delights in discovering Judaism. All my questions were allowed! I could argue with the textual tradition, question its provenance, re-interpret it. Best of all, no one started out by telling me what I must believe. Thus I learned that Judaism is not rooted not in dogma, but rather on practice and on community. This fundamental difference made re-engagement with religion possible for me.